Blog, Commentary

Massively Open Online Glass Ceilings

I got into an argument with someone on Twitter today about the future of education.

You thought I would be productive and focused and not randomly angry at random people just because I’m not blogging regularly anymore? Ha ha, PSYCHE.

The conversation was with someone who’s a major enough voice in the tech community to have a 6-digit follower-count on Twitter. The tweets that I saw were in response to the news about Harvard and MIT putting massive amounts of resources into making their curriculum available online, for free, and how surely this would be the solution to all of our education problems! After all, Udacity and EdX and Khan Academy exist! So if you still don’t have education, well, I mean, really that’s just your own fault.

This is endemic of a certain type of pseudo-libertarian techno-utopianism that I’ve been seeing cropping up more and more, especially in discussions of why it doesn’t matter that postal service and library funding are being slashed across the board because email and Wikipedia. And it’s really tiresome.

The postal service is not just a mechanism for getting bills. It is a representation of dedication to country-wide communication infrastructure. It enables rapid and cheap delivery of physical documents (like lawsuits!), court-approved time and date evidence, and a guaranteed way of reaching someone else in the country, no matter where you are. It’s what all those online businesses that you love so much, like Amazon and Netflix, are dependent upon for their economies of scale. It’s what your relatives need to send out Christmas cards.

It’s not something that can be replaced by mercernary for-profit mail-delivery agencies, because then they would go the way of mercenary for-profit internet-delivery agencies: really shitty service where there aren’t enough people to make it worth their while. Someone in Alaska can send a letter to someone in North Carolina for the exact same cost as someone in Manhattan sending a letter to someone in Long Island. Do you think FedEx would be that charitable? Or should people who live in rural areas–already more likely to be lower-income than urban dwellers–be punished financially for living there? Moreover, even the things that do, in part, supplant certain postal service functions–email, online bill-pay–are by no means universally available, nor does everyone know how to use them.

Likewise, libraries are not just a place where you get books. It’s dumb that this still even needs to be said. It’s a place where learning happens for people who most need it and have the fewest other resources. It’s a place where you go not only to find out information, but to find out how to find out information, and how to turn information into knowledge. It’s a publicly available third space in communities that are rapidly losing real estate to commercial enterprises. Libraries are a quiet space in many lives that have none; librarians are impartial purveyors of information that can literally save your life in a world that only wants to sell you whatever generates the most profit.

That thing about how universal postal service is superfluous because you can pay your bills online? What happens when you don’t have internet? Where do you go when libraries, the only public provider of no-strings-attached internet, die away because some people decided that the invention of Kindles meant that you were justified in abolishing a community institution?

The ability to be reached, to be on the grid, is so fundamental to our participation in this society that to discount the needs of people who don’t have access to the same communications technology you do is kind of the definition of anti-social. Furthermore, postal offices and libraries both serve the function of being a community hub, especially in rural areas. They are the central gathering point where social, rather than quantitative, information is exchanged. It’s not just a matter of whining about frequency and time delay of post deliveries; there are rural communities where there are no longer post offices, where mailing a package becomes a day trip.

(And if your solution to all of the above is “move to the city”, I will roll my eyes and make fun of you behind your back, and then ask: cell signals break down when there’s a slightly popular concert somewhere. Traffic congestion and air quality is a constant headache even to people who have been in cities all their lives. Where is the infrastructure that can scale to that level of mass urbanization? Moreover, it is not the responsibility of people who have lived in a certain geographic area all their lives to displace themselves because the government can’t be bothered to fund its core services.)

The macho posturing about how online education will Solve! Everything! is a natural extension of that Silicon Valley callousness towards libraries and the postal service.

There are so many great things about online education and MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), and I don’t want to discount any of it. There’s a lot of expert knowledge that was previously difficult to access that has now been laid out in a format that is reasonably linear. There are a lot of people doing really great work trying to make knowledge accessible, and I admire them immensely.

But the problem with higher education is not a single-facet issue, and YouTube videos and PDFs are not the panacea.

The one-way flow of information from professor to student is only one of the many aspects of a education. The greatest lecturer in an MOOC is still only a public speaker, and the worst professor is still someone you can go to with a question. MOOCs often assume one specific learning style, with no room for flexibility because the professor doesn’t know how you’re doing. And in my experience, the number of people who are capable of self-directed, unfocused learning is actually vanishingly small, and that the structure offered by a learning institution is as much a portion of learning as the actual material. (Otherwise, why can’t we become world-class scientists just by reading JSTOR articles?)

More crucially, the people who are least capable of paying for a traditional college experience are oftentimes the people who least have the qualitative skills necessary to dive head-first into the ivory tower of academia without any guidance. Critical thinking, the ability to take an overwhelming amount of information and distill it, time management, even the language spoken by educators and textbooks and the shared frame of reference…all of that needs practice, and yet all of that is assumed to be a universal skill. Even traditional students, with an army of administrative and support staff around them, often fail in this.

There is no MOOC to teach you how to navigate the fundamental assumptions about education that MOOCs are predicated on. If we want an institution to democratize education such that someone who previously was shut out of higher education can now access this resource, we have to also think about the characteristics of those who have been shut out and how that has already hurt them. It’s not democratization if the only people hacking around with Udacity are people who already have white collar jobs. It’s easy for the person who’s had a computer in their home all their life to say that you can teach yourself web development and start freelancing. If you’ve never used a computer before, even use of a mouse seems incomprehensible.

Not to mention, the failing in higher education isn’t just about the cost of tuition, although that’s a huge part of it. There’s also the problem that the opportunity cost of education–time spent learning is time spent not earning money–doesn’t go away just because the specific piece of paper no longer costs money. The suggestion that you can devote two hours a night to studying and thus get a higher education makes many dangerous assumption:

Do you have kids? Do you have relatives to take care of? How much do you work, and how long is the commute? How far away is the grocery store? Do you get quality food? Do you get enough sleep? Do you have a mountain of stresses that intrude on you anytime you sit down to do something just for yourself?

And I go back to the library and postal service argument: Do you have internet? Do you know how to use the internet? Do you understand, broadly, how user interfaces work on a computer? Are you aware that these online resources exist? Do you have anyone in your life who might tell you about them? Are these resources written in a way to be welcoming and friendly to someone who isn’t a WASP-y Brooklynite?

Do you live in a society that wants you to succeed, or that has already written you off? Do you live in a society that encourages self-improvement, or does it call higher education elitist and then blames you when doors close?

Has anyone ever told you that you deserve to succeed? That you are capable of succeeding?

Do you see where I’m getting at?

The failings of the higher education system goes far beyond degree inflation, tuition inflation, indentured servitude of all who take out student loans, and speaks to the basic way our education systems are designed to help only certain types of people. The same way that the failings of the postal service and of the public library system goes beyond falling patronage rates, and speaks to the priorities of our government and its attitude towards its least-privileged citizens.

There’s something really fundamental in all of this about how we want to treat those who aren’t as fortunate as we are. Are we willing to accommodate the people most at risk of being left behind by the technological divide? Or are we going to let them fall behind and pretend to ourselves that it’s somehow social darwinism, rather than us callously benefiting from institutionalized privilege?

Systems need to be designed for the lowest common denominator. Broadband access, computer literacy, and the ability to learn something just by reading about it is not that. They’re privileges that many don’t have, even if you don’t want to admit it. And all the blue-sky thinking in the world about 100% smartphone penetration won’t solve this one.


One thought on “Massively Open Online Glass Ceilings

  1. I had this discussion earlier this week. It took me 4 failed attempts to manage my full time life/workload and online school. There is almost no support system set up to show you how to succeed at managing your own time while taking online courses. There’s a lot of class assumptions built into “oh, just take it online”. It also doesn’t factor in that alongside the degree inflation, you need to have accreditation, and taking core classes that you might not get any credit for does nothing at all to fix this. Also, I am taking 95% of my courses online. The one that I understand best and get the most out of? The one I get free through work that I go sit in a class on my lunch hour for.

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